I spent the weekend on Sado Island off the western coast of Honshu. We went for the yearly taiko festival, Earth Celebration, and I expected to see some drum circles, drink some beer and call it a day. I ended up in balloon pants, and it was awesome.

We took an overnight bus from Tokyo to Naoetsu then boarded a ferry to Ogi, a small town on the southern edge of the island. In total the trip took almost 11 hours. I thought the night bus would drain me of every ounce of energy and leave me ruined for the rest of the trip, but in fact, as soon as I arrived in Sado I felt refreshed. The air was clear and people were relaxed — it was the best parts of Japan in vacation mode.

I tagged along on a ride to Skyline Drive and stuck my head out the car window like a golden retriever. To my left was a rocky coastline, to the right, rice fields. The island is mountainous and dramatic, but the water is calm and clear.

We parked along the road and picked our way through rice fields, then the trees, and finally out to a secret swimming cove. The water was an incredible blue-green color, with alternating currents of chilling cold water, then bath-like hot. We jumped from the rocks, and I got a sufficient amount of salt water up my nose.

Sado’s scenery is amazing, but the reason we went was for the taiko. Every year Sado hosts Earth Celebration where Kodo, Japan’s most respected taiko group, presents concerts, workshops, and festival events. Previous to this weekend I had never seen Kodo perform, and in all honestly, hadn’t been that interested in taiko. But as soon as Kodo took the stage I was entranced. Kodo’s style is strong and captivating and musical. And the drums are really big. You not only hear the music, you feel it.

Just before dusk everyone climbs the steep hill to Shiroyama Park and spreads their small tarps on the lawn. The stage was backlit with lightning from the mainland and the sound from the せみ, or cicadas, competed with Kodo for center stage.

After the first concert I went from being an observer to wanting to embrace the experience. I bought baggy pants at the outdoor market near the harbor. I danced samba and cheered on capoeira on the fringe stage. I learned a festival street dance. I ate kakigori and drank Japanese craft beer regardless of the time of day. I went on a kayaking excursion and engaged in a water war with the teenagers in our group. In return, I was soaked from head to toe and had to wrap myself in my sarong which was meant to be my concert blanket.

I’m not sure if it is the festival atmosphere of Earth Celebration, or if people on Sado are just Japanese-nice to an extreme, but everyone I met was genuine and kind and excited that I was there. Their attitudes were contagious and refreshing. After misplacing my swimming suit after that fated kayaking trip, the volunteer at the info office told me, “Don’t worry, we’ll find it. Now go have fun!” OK, if you insist! I did as I was told and a few hours later retrieved my damp suit from her desk, tied up in a small bag. She said, “It’s a little bit disgusting,” but she said it with a smile.

I was sad to leave and am already plotting my return.

I’ll see you again, Sado.

Kodo photos were taken by my friend James Gunsalus. Thanks Jim!